Where journalism has gone, data follows
Even serious journalism has learned tricks from tabloids, TV, and Twitter; so will data analysis and viz
News and data may seem to have little to do with each other until you look closely. When you do, you may see parallel tracks, with news out in front. Though we may never hear, “Stay tuned for data at 11,” we may see news’s lead foreshadow data’s path in ways we can’t yet foresee.
It’s a harebrained idea that occurred to me as I took a first look at a research paper* today on the tabloidization of news.
Today we have serious data science, which is comparable to the broadsheet news of serious newspapers and journals. On the less serious end, there’s simpler data, a kind of tabloid data, such as in popularized visualization.
We’ve seen it every day over the last two years in Covid-data displays — important, interesting, and easy. Just those charts alone probably raised the general level of data literacy, the ability to understand data and talk about it. Covid or not, data literacy has probably been rising and will continue.
Data literacy’s rise follows general literacy’s track. But if general literacy was supposed to make serious readers and thinkers out of the general population, it seems to have failed — at least if their reading habits indicate anything. The bulk stuck with the tabloids. Then over the second half of the century, people flocked to radio and TV. Later, social media. Throughout, the shift from serious to sensational was steady. As the research paper put it,
… entertainment has superseded the provision of information; human interest has supplanted the public interest; measured judgment has succumbed to sensationalism; the trivial has triumphed over the weighty; the intimate relationships of celebrities from soap operas, the world of sport or the royal family are judged to be more ‘newsworthy’ than the reporting of significant issues and events of international consequence. Traditional news values have been undermined by new values.
Obviously, the comparison of news to data is not direct. Still, data and news do respond to similar social trends.
• Popularization; it’s true for news and data.
• Each one’s set of audiences has various levels of literacy.
• Technology’s growing capability and accessibility; data and news can be transmitted with ever greater ease and customization.
• Varying style preferences among user generations; the young want it delivered in new ways and the old want it the way they’re used to getting it.
• Data and news are both commodities that exist to educate an audience.
This analogy is something to chew on and talk about. But at first glance, a “data driven” world will drive us into a wall or over a cliff.
* Digital Journalism and Tabloid Journalism, Marco T. Bastos. Pre-publication; 2016.